Editing, writing

Two grammar “rules” you can boldly ignore

As kids in school, we were taught lots of rules. Even in those days, some rules seemed more important than others. “Look both ways before crossing the street,” always seemed reasonable, as did “Always start sentences with a capital letter.”

However, “Wait for an hour after eating before you swim,” was always suspicious to me, as was, “Never start a sentence with and or but.” Luckily, rules change.

Here are two rules that aren’t really rules anymore, and which you have my (and others) permission to break.

“Never split infinitives”

It’s okay if you can’t remember what an infinitive is because it’s okay to split them. Star Trek brought us one of the most famous split infinitives: to boldly go. The infinitive is to go, and they split it in half with the adverb boldly. Some grammar aficionados want this to read to go boldly. But that wouldn’t work well at the start of a television show, would it?

The origins of this so-called rule come from Latin, where the infinitive form of a verb is only one word, and therefore can’t be split. The logic was, if it can’t be done in Latin then it shouldn’t be done in English either. That’s kind of unfair, no? It can also lead to clumsy sentence structures, which grammar rules are meant to prevent. So feel free to bravely split infinitives when you need to.

“You can’t start a sentence with and or butconjunctions

We could also throw because, or, and so into this category as well. All of these words are coordinating conjunctions, and I was taught in grade school not to use them at the start of a sentence. However, even the experts at the Chicago Manual of Style disagree.

There is a widespread belief—one with no historical or grammatical foundation—that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and, but or so … It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice.

We were taught—quite correctly—that these conjunctions are used to connect ideas together in a sentence. But they can also serve a similar purpose at the start of a sentence, and can help improve the flow of a paragraph. (See how I just did that?)

Our teachers probably discouraged this behaviour to prevent poor habits. Using conjunctions inappropriately at the start of sentences can lead to sentence fragments, which aren’t real sentences at all. So how do you know if you’re in safe territory? If the sentence is still complete without the conjunction at the beginning, chances are you’re just fine.

But you don’t have to believe me. Visit the experts at Oxford Dictionaries to read more about grammar myths. And the next someone tells you, “Hey, you can’t do that,” you can point them in the right direction.

Oh, and that business about swimming? You should always use common sense around the water, but even experts say you don’t have to wait an hour.

2 thoughts on “Two grammar “rules” you can boldly ignore”

  1. I agree too. And I often start sentences with conjunctions, and I split infinities like they were hairs in a grammar argument.

    But I do edit out split infinitives of one specific type: where the writer splits an infinitive with not just one or two words, but with one or more phrases. I’m talking about things like “to boldly, sternly, and with great fortitude, as though compelled by the ghost of Gene Roddenberry himself, go…”

    If an infinitive is split too far, the “to” starts looking to the reader like it’s acting as a preposition, and then mayhem ensues. But as long as we’re limiting ourselves to an adverb or two, I agree that it’s all fine.


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